Friday, July 15, 2011

A Few Words from a mid-21st Century Deputy Sheriff

Okay, I really have to break in here. All this scribbling about "utopianism" is really scraping me off. As if folk shouldn't draw up ideas for a good future! As if Guetti doesn't do it himself, all the time...not that he ever does anything except talk and write about it!

Hi. My name is Lance Shaw. This is Nick Guetti's "blog", whatever that means, and I couldn't find my way around a computer if I had a manual, so he's typing this for me. I've had some schooling, and I can read and write okay, but I don't know how to type--I've never worked in the print shop in town. Otherwise, I'd be doing this myself. But Guetti's honest, I guess I can say...although he's the worst kind of hypocrite about some things.

I live in a small town called Homestead, a little over thirty miles--about six, seven hours' ride, more or less--northeast from Amherst, in the New England Commonwealth...south-central New England, right at the eastern feet of the Berkshire Hills. A lot's changed since your time, in case you're wondering about my geography. Trust me: I may not be a genius in that area, but I am a Deputy Sheriff, and you don't get that job without having a little data in your drive about where you live. I don't really get into all the politics of it, or the history--that's more Guetti's kind of thing--but I guess I know as much about where--and when--I'm from as I need to.

Homestead's been there for exactly as long as I have. It started off as a Rural Reclamation Community. The founding members of the Town Council--the Randalls and those--came there with some legal notes and a bunch of folk, including me and my foster family, back in 2034, when I was eight years old. That was eight or nine years ago, now, right after the end of the Civil Wars. I grew up watching it grow up, from pretty much nothing but a ten-acre plateau in a cove up on the side of a mountain--just a bare, rocky, wide ravine with a spring at the end of it--to a town of about nine hundred folk, now, not including children. Scrap, I don't even know everybody there anymore! Most of them came there to build it--and in eight years they carved another ten acres out of the side of that mountain--but there have been children born there since pretty much day one. I guess I know most of them, all right...and I think all the children know me. Well, everybody knows who I am, I guess: me, and Aidan Meecham and the Sheriff. Folk talk a lot about us.

My parents were killed in the last part of the Wars, and my sister Melissa and me ended up with their friends, the Meechams--Aidan's folk. We're from Amherst, which was pretty torn up at that time, but the Commonwealth was already getting their scrap together. A lot of the big families--the Founding Houses, they're called now, who helped folk during the Wars--got involved, and they had thousands of people building, farming, writing law...they got busy. The military top brass of the United American Rebellion were there too, of course--it was right after their victory--along with those of the Army of New England, and together they set up their big joint academy, Fort Wescott. We were already gone by then, out to Homestead. The Commonwealth needed RRCs like us out in the countryside to keep it inhabited by something other than bandits. I haven't been back to Amherst since, but I hear it's gotten pretty impressive in eight years. Freight caravans come through Homestead four, five, six times a year, to and from there. It's a big city, all right: sixteen and a half thousand people, now, I guess.

Guetti says nobody who reads this is going to call a community of that size a big city. Like I said, things have changed. They do that. Amherst is probably the biggest city in all the eastern provinces. They say the capital out in Pacifica is a lot bigger--more than twenty-five thousand, supposedly--but I don't know. That's way the hell out west, across the Waste and the Divide. Guetti says that's where he lives--where, not when. He's like you, from before...

Where was I? Okay, so anyway, I got into archery when I was about ten. To tell the truth, I don't really remember much before then, and I don't really like to. I guess I was having a lot of trouble before, but once I started shooting, things got better. I've never wanted to do much else. Giles Garrett, the merchant from North Adams, gave me my first bow and arrows at May Fair that year, and Sheriff Lambert got me pointing my arrows downrange at the tournament there. I started working with the bowyers and fletchers, and a little bit with the smiths, that same year, before and after school, and at night I'd go to the range if the Town Guard wasn't using all of it. Next May Fair, the year after, I won that tournament. After eighth grade I quit going to school and joined the militia, still working as a bowyer. Constable Chedsey--he's a big, smart, tough, grizzly old veteran--put me through weights and calisthenics, how to ride and handle a horse, along with all the other volunteers, and I got to shoot more often. Aidan had already been with them two years: his Dad's on the council, and pretty close with Sheriff Lambert, who taught Aidan how to use the big cutter--the hand-and-a-half sword, they call it. That's his thing; not too many folk know how to swing one of those...actually, him and the Sheriff, and that's it as far as I know. He's a pretty good archer himself, too...not as good as me, but he doesn't make it his life like I do. I'm not saying I'm the best shot in town or anything: there's a few around here who've trained at it a lot longer than I have. I'm only sixteen, after all.

Anyway, about a year and a half ago, a couple of jumpers came into town. That's what we call scraps who roam around rural communities like ours, looking for women to hurt. Or girls...or boys, for that matter. We'd had a lot of trouble with the Pit Vipers from the ruins southwest of there before that time (and I was too young to be involved in those fights), but these two were different: slickers from Amherst, I guess...I don't know; I never did ask about what their notes said, or where they came from. But me and Aidan were out in the south orchards after most of the pickers had already gone back one evening in late summer, looking for some rabbit or grouse or pheasant to shoot. I don't do much hunting, but I like some small game when I can get it. We fry it up and glaze it with preserves or syrup out there. Anyway, these two jumpers were out where we were, and they were hunting something else. Wanda Veeder, who was just thirteen, was cleaning up and gleaning a last few apples after the rest had gone, and they caught her. They didn't know we were there, and we saw what was going on, but not before they had her down on the ground with her skirt up. As soon as we figured out what we were seeing, we just killed them. I put a broadhead in the side of one and then gutted him with my cutter. Aidan shot the other in the leg, chased him down and about took his head off with that sword of his. We hacked those scum to pieces; I mean, we butchered them. We saved the girl, but she'd never seen that much blood in her life, and she got as scared of us as she'd been of them. She never talked to us after that.

Because they'd been citizens, with notes and everything, instead of bandits, it was first. Most of the Council were horrified. Plenty of folk had been objecting to guys as young as me being given arms and turned into fighters, and when we turned up back home that night covered with blood and with a freaked-out girl in tow and told the Guard without batting an eyelid that we'd killed two guys we said were jumpers, they thought maybe the objections might have had something to them. We pointed out that a girl getting raped was kind of a big deal too, and Wanda Veeder finally remembered how to talk again and told them we weren't lying. That was a bad night. The Council questioned me and Aidan separately, and asked us all kinds of stupid questions about what we were thinking when we did it, what we were "feeling" afterwards, and did we know it was wrong to kill someone without a trial. Scrap, no one asks you how you feel about killing one of them Goddamned Pit Vipers when they come raiding and you're on the militia, and these two were no better, I don't care if they had notes from the freaking Prime Secretary's office! They may have, for all I wanted to know. The Sheriff stuck up for us, and one or two others did too. Paul Meecham, Aidan's Dad, didn't say anything: he just sat and listened. Me and Aidan both told them the same thing: we were just glad we'd been there, and that we'd just wanted Wanda Veeder safe. Even so, they were going to take us off the militia. Before they could, the Sheriff got us alone with some legal notes and, real quick, signed us in as full Deputy Sheriffs--leaders of the actual Town Guard: the police, not the militia. That way, we belonged to him and couldn't be charged with a crime or stripped of arms without a full consensus of everyone on the Council...including Sheriff Lambert himself.

They wanted his blood for that. They were roaring for it. He was in a closed session with the Council for all that night and all the next day, but when he came out, he was still the Sheriff and we were still his Deputies. He told us later what he'd said to the Council: that these times were not like before the Wars, and nice young men became killers some times, and that me and Aidan were good lads with a lot of martial aptitude, and you couldn't turn back the clock anyway. He said the town had two choices: let us go on being killers, with no more training, or else train us harder than before and make us into fighters who use our training to protect innocent lives, which is obviously what we wanted to do anyway. But, he said, he was going to train our asses off every day; this was going to make training in the militia look like picking blackberries.

He wasn't lying. But my notes had a lot more numbers on them after that--a lot  more--and we started going out on patrol trainings, where he taught us how to use our eyes and ears to spot signs of potential threats. And he combat trained us personally from then on, too, which was no joke. He's been in the of the Golden Eagles, the Rebellion's military elite--a Sergeant. He'd seen a lot of combat in the last few years of the Wars, before he "retired" and became a Sheriff. He taught us how to lead militia squads. And for everybody who thinks I'm too young to be doing this scrap, there's at least one other who appreciates it. I started getting a lot of respect. Children look up to me. I started my own elite archers' militia squad--trained them myself. They're mostly younger than me, and they can all outshoot me at long range already; I got them to teach themselves how to do that specifically, just to watch them do it. They can all hit a hay bale with a high volley from a hundred and seventy yards, over and over again, all day long, and rarely do they miss. The Council hates that I'm doing that, but they can't do scrap about it, except insist that my squad gets the best gear the town can afford when they're working, armor and so on, and they do. They all want to be like me, and they love to talk about how in some ways they can actually shoot better. Anyway, in a pretty short time, I could afford a little house for me and Melissa in the Residential area. It's a small earth-stone-and-timber, but it's got a garden, two stories, a good kitchen, a methane digester, water piped in from the storage tanks uphill, insulation's not bad. And it's ours. Melissa's working at the medical and veterinary clinics, mostly, but she's always helping everybody in her spare time. Somehow she finds time to paint, too. We're doing fine.

I ran into Nick Guetti not long ago...although he says it's like five years ago, for him. I don't really understand that; this time travel thing is weird. He said he wanted to write a book about me, and about some big, mysterious change that's supposed to happen soon in my time. I finally said he could do it, though I don't know what his interest is in writing about me, of all people. I haven't known him that long, and I don't get him, and I'm pretty sure he really doesn't get me either. I don't like him that much, to tell you the truth. I think he romanticizes the lives of people like me, though he doesn't think he does. He says he really tries not to, and I guess I have to believe him, because he is honest, in a sketchy, inward, unaccountable kind of way. But he's also a hypocrite...or he would be, if he wasn't even harder on himself than he is on others. Like I say, I don't get him. I think he's manipulative: he puts people in really insanely intense situations just "to see how their characters develop", like he says, and I don't think he gives a scrap about the content of their lives, even though he writes it all down like a legal writer in the Commonwealth Attorney's copy shop. It's weird. Unsettling. He actually scares me that way sometimes. I think he knows something about the future--my future, I mean, not yours--and he won't say what it is. He just says it's going to be amazing. Whatever that's supposed to mean.

Whatever happens, I hope it helps Melissa stop having those nightmares. They've been getting worse...

But I didn't mean to talk about my life so much. All I really wanted to say is that you can't necessarily trust all that Guetti says. Like I say, I've got to hand it to him for being honest enough to let me dictate all this through him, but I think he's got weird ideas. He never really does anything, is what I think it is; he just practices his "martial arts", goes to work, comes home and spends his and his wife's money to pay other people to do most everything for him while he sits around and writes about real people who do real things! If he tried to use that kung-fu bullhonkey on me--and of course he never would, he's a decent guy--but if he did, I'd just send him running with one of my broadheads in his ass. Those fancy moves aren't scrap around here.

He once asked me how I felt about all the people a generation ago...people like you; about how you all could have made a difference, lived more wisely, left a smaller footprint, done more about the politics, and yatta yatta ya, maybe prevented the climate change, and the Wars. I have to ask, what kind of a freaking question is that? Why do some people seem so interested in how I feel about folk doing what folk freaking do?! And it's not as if anything you did rendered me helpless, is it? Like I said: me, and Melissa, and all the folk and the children and everything, here in Homestead...we're all right. You don't need to worry about us. We're sure better off than you: a whole lot of you are dead! I don't think two thirds of you in 2011 survived to see the United States surrender to the Rebellion in '38. That was a bloody twenty-three years we had, after '16. But it's over now, and the Union down south as been quiet; they seem to be living and letting live. The weather could be better: half the year, you can't even cross the Midwest, let alone live there, and the maple sugar harvests out here are supposed to be not as good as they used to be...I could handle a little more of that. It's a delicacy, and we don't export it.

Mostly, I'm too busy to think about the past. I don't know what to think about you; I don't have to live your lives, and I don't like to give people advice. But Guetti won't leave me alone until I do, so here it is. I hope you're not like him, just sitting around and noticing things that happen, and treating them like art in a museum or files in a video archive or books in a library. I hope you spend your time doing things that actually matter, and that when you notice something that needs to be dealt with, you just take care of it, without feeling like you need an invitation or authorization from someone else who isn't even there to help you. Beyond that, I guess...just do your job. Work for your community, and be happy with what they give you for it. Respect your leaders, and your elders...I mean, don't take everything they say like it's true, because often they're full of scrap, but at least listen to them.

And practice what you love! Say anything you want, it's what you love to do that's going to be most worth doing.

Me, I'm going to go get some dinner and go to bed! Guetti's kept me talking here for hours. Scrap, I don't think I've talked this much all year. It's cold tonight, and I've got to get up early tomorrow. Giles's caravan is coming in from North Adams, and I'm the Guardsman at Arms on that shift. We haven't had Viper trouble in a couple years, but you never know...

Anyway, I'm tired, and Melissa'll have stew on the table by now. She'll turn me into a freaking newt if I let it get cold. Goodnight.

Lance Shaw is a fictional character in the forthcoming fantasy novel Archer, by Nick Guetti, currently scheduled to be finished, re-drafted, edited and published by... Well, as soon as Guetti can get his lazy act together. As of January 2043, he serves as a Deputy Sheriff in the Rural Reclamation Community of Homestead in the New England Commonwealth, a sovereign province of the United American Restructuring (UAR). He resides with his younger sister, Melissa...and no, she can't actually turn people into newts...yet. He is destined to be a great hero in a time of change that not even someone of his era can yet imagine. To him, it will be nothing special, and no more than can be expected. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ecocalypse Now: Neo-Utopianism vs. Ecology; OR the Theory of the Un-Bad Person, part 1: "Island" by Aldous Huxley; Arlo Guthrie vs. Bob Dylan

"You can't have a light, without havin' a dark to stick it in," Arlo Guthrie once said, and proceeded to put forth one of the greatest stupid jokey ideas of the 20th century: the Theory of the Un-Neutron Bomb.

The theory goes thus: Since you can't have an object without its opposite object (for example, alternate universe Spock with a beard), then it should be possible to construct something called the un-neutron bomb. This, Guthrie explained, would be a weapon that could be deployed against any national threat (presumably including domestic tyranny). On detonation, buildings, weapons and other infrastructure would disintegrate, and clothing would also vanish, leaving naked people inhabiting, as Guthrie evoked, a landscape of flowers, trees and butterflies (presumably the UN-bomb has some sort of bio-generative properties opposite to the degenerative effects of nuclear fallout on DNA).

Even at age twelve or whatever I was when I heard this, I didn't take it seriously. Yes, I had a pre-teen Doctor Who fan's concept of what radiation actually is. Yes, I was already an aspiring fantasy author (and now, nearly 30 years later, still aspiring to be published). Yes, I half-believed in the premise of the UN-bomb theory, namely that there are "opposites" in that sense (and by reduction, the pre-premise: that there are "objects"). Still, there was something about it (I mean besides the fact that it was a joke) that didn't seem quite plausible.

Let's forget, for a moment, that the physical science of such an idea is nonexistent: that's sort of irrelevant here, because what I'm trying to get to is the motivation behind the development of such a theory. Who wants the un-neutron bomb, and why? Is such an idea compatible with ecology? Would it be a good thing if there were an un-neutron bomb?

I think Derrick Jensen would welcome it. The fact that such an infrastructural holocaust as a global un-thermonuclear war would undoubtedly result in the slow, painful and brutal extermination by attrition and cannibalism of at least 90% of the human population might, I dare credit his soul, give him pause. Still, in the end I suspect that, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, Jensen would arrive at the final solution. "Drop the UN-bomb! Exterminate all the brutes!"

I find Arlo Guthrie sometimes pleasant to listen to. Hippies in general tend to be fun to look at, as a sort of aesthetically inspiring eye-candy--just as long as you don't look too closely, too deep or for too long.

"Dude," said a guy I met at the Cal Expo Grateful Dead shows in the summer of 1990, "like, I got four different kinds of bugs in my hair. They're part of me, man. Look, see? Like, I got red ones, 'n' I got black ones, 'n' I got brown ones, 'n' I got white ones. They're part of me, man. Hey, Kind Rainbow Brother, can I get a ride to Ohio in your bus? I can totally kick you down some gas, after we get there, 'cause there's this Kind Brother who owes me a sack, and I'm pretty sure he's gonna be there, but I'm not, like, totally sure he's gonna be there, so I might not be able to kick down right away, but..."

Dude, shut up. First of all, I'm not going to Ohio. Second of all, if you so much as come near my vehicle with all your beloved Kind Rainbow Vermin, they will soon have need of something else to be "part of".

I consider myself reasonably compassionate, but am not above the use of Draculian terrorism in the cause of self-preservation from lice. For "Kind Rainbow Brother", read "Beautiful Soul".

I also have a soft spot, even as a post-OOO thinker, for utopian literature, especially the neo-utopian fantasies of the deep ecology and ecofeminist movements. One day, I'd like to write a paper (or maybe just a bunch of electrons, since the "paperless" method is supposed to save trees...though it doesn't do much for Africans) on this sub-multi-genre of literature. What would I call that, in the first place? Leave that for later.

Without a doubt, my absolute favorite of these books is the granddaddy of them all, the great eco-socialist fantasy Island, by the great Aldous Huxley. If you haven't read this, I don't want to talk to you. I used to buy all the copies of this I could find and hand them out for free. The story is of a journalist-cum-spy named Will Farnaby who travels to the fictional South Pacific island of Pala, home to a nation of democratic village-socialist syndicalist Mahayanists of Native-Tibetan-Indian-Scottish heritage. Never yet conquered by a more powerful state due to a lack of anything to motivate such conquest prior to the discovery of oil, Pala has been allowed to develop pretty much as it chooses, accepting such foreign influences as can be of use (sustainable agriculture from Rothamsted in the UK, spiritual practices from Tibet, secular humanism from the only Westerners who chose to go and live there, concrete and hydroelectricity for refrigeration, biology labs, etc.) while eschewing those which they deemed destructive (sports cars, mass media, physics labs and other unaffordable toys). Farnaby's mission, unknown to the Palanese, is to make contact with elements in the island nation's government who wish to exploit Pala's rich and largely unused oil reserves and broker a deal between them and Farnaby's boss, an unscrupulous and disgusting petroleum tycoon who owns several newspapers. But in the act of sneaking onto the island (journalists are not normally given Palanese visas), Farnaby is injured in a shipwreck and scared half out of his wits. He is rescued, as luck would have it, by the Scots-Palanese physician Dr. Robert MacPhail, an influential man on the island. Farnaby's injuries--both superficially physical and deep-seated, long-term psychological--are very effectively treated by the holistic Palanese medical system, and he is soon able to explore the island's various facilities and talk to its people. He meets the greedy government officials and brokers the deal, knowing full well that his actions are odious, but justifying it to himself through the cynical assertion that Pala's seemingly ideal way of life can not possibly be real, and that even if it were real, it can not possibly last with the world being what it is. He soon finds, however, that Pala is no ideal, but a reality, and that he loves the island and wants to stay. The message of Island, finally, is that despite the observable realities of war, conquest and the repetitive, savage idiocy of human history, there is nevertheless the equally observable "fact that there was this capacity even in a paranoiac for intelligence, even in a devil worshipper for love; the fact that the ground of all being could be totally manifest in a flowering shrub, a human face; the fact that there was a light and that this light was also compassion". (Quote taken from the book.) 

I did not intend this post to be a review of Island, but it looks like that's what it's going to be this time. I had intended to cover the multi-sub-genre of eco-utopian fantasy more generally, but I now see that this is beyond the scope of my ability to fit a finished blog post into a reasonable amount of time. Whatever. On with it. 

I don't really want to talk about Brave New World; we are dealing with utopias in this genre, not dystopias, and as dystopian novels go, BNW is not Huxley's best, in my opinion. That distinction belongs to a later work, the post-nuclear Ape And Essence, which I will review at another time, as it is extremely relevant to what I'm trying to get to in this blog series on eco-utopian literature. Nevertheless, you can't really talk about Island as a novel without mentioning BNW, because the former was intended by Huxley to be a sort of antithesis to the latter...the Un-Dystopian Novel, I will call it here. Here are the specific antitheses of the two novels: 1) In BNW, hallucinogens and opiates are used for pacification of individuals and the masses, whle in Island, psychoactive entheogens are used for enlightenment and self-knowledge; 2) In BNW, the political system encourages group living for the sake of eliminating destructive individuality (totalitarianism), while in Island, group living is also encouraged, but mainly in the form of "Mutual Adoption Clubs", so that children will have alternatives other than compulsory exposure to their parents neuroses; 3) In BNW, trance states (research into which Huxley was passionately interested) are technologically induced for the purpose of indoctrination of individuals into the sociopolitical monoculture, while in Island, trance is a technique taught to those with the natural aptitude, for the purpose of accelerated learning (from which follows that those who generally become programmed followers in Western society would become leaders and innovative problem-solvers in Pala); 4) In BNW, reproduction is universally assisted and everyone grows from a high-tech test-tube baby, while in Island, assisted reproduction is not compulsory, but is common in the form of low-tech artificial insemination (reproduction being highly intentional in Pala, much more so than most of us would be used to); 5) In BNW, contraception is mandatory, and sex itself is mandated to be promiscuous and purely recreational, while in Island, contraception is not mandated, but made freely available to enable reproductive choice, and Tantric sex is made part of the school curriculum as a means of promoting physical and mental health; 6) In BNW, people are given monthly doses of adrenalin to provide them with their ration of fear and rage without having to act on it, while in Island, stress is diffused through dangerous sports such as rock-climbing; 7) In BNW, ubiquitous disembodied mechanical voices lull people into conformity, while in Island, mynah birds whose ancestors were trained by the originators of Pala's social system fly and perch freely about the island, uttering "Attention!" and "Karuna!" to remind people to attend to the moment and to have compassion (a non-technological and non-stupefying form of mass-media). 

Wow. Every time I read Huxley (and I've read Island more times than Bob Marley read the Bible, and transcribed it, and even tried to adapt it for film), I learn something new. These seven factors are a really good summary of the elements of a society relative to human health and ecology. Let's briefly summarize them: 1) use of psychoactive substances; 2) emphasis of the importance of the society or the individual; 3) use of the abilities of exceptionally impressionable individuals; 4) policies on reproduction; 5) policies on sex (NOT the same as reproduction, unless reproduction is allowed to be totally unintentional); 6) policies on the diffusion of human emotional stress; and 7) the psychological use of mass media (in whatever form). Let's call these the Seven Huxleyan Principles of an Intentional Nation. SHPIN? We'll work on it. 

These seven principles, I will argue, will have to be dealt with in any society that attempts to be ecologically--or in any other way--sustainable. Drugs exist. Individuals and groups exist. A substantial proportion of the population will always be easy to hypnotize or educate in one way or another. If we want to survive as a species, we must reproduce, and so must everything else. Sex exists, and tends to be less hygienic the less it is intentionally dealt with. Stress happens. There will always be mass media in one form or another, even without TV, radio or the internet. These things are all facts, and can not be deconstructed; furthermore, they all tend to become problems if they are not dealt with in a very intentional way...exercised, to put it one way. 

It will take a lot more than an Un-Neutron Bomb to create a world that Huxley, or I, would consider worth living in; namely, it will take intention and responsibility. To the extent that people idealize holocaust or disaster, we fail in our aspiration to ecology and are reduced to a kind of selective nihilism. Each neo-utopian self-styled "ecologist" probably sees the only survivors of the blessed disaster as people with the same ideas and priorities as themselves: Good People. This is a manifestation of what Timothy Morton calls "Beautiful Soul Syndrome". But ecology, by definition, must include the realization that there is no "other", no object "over there" that is different, separate from or opposite to that which perceives it. There is no Un-Neutron Bomb, and there is no Un-Bad Person. So if you find yourself thinking how ideal it would be to erase the civilization we have for the sake of seeing the rise of one that you think would be better, just remember that somewhere--probably somewhere fairly close by--someone else is imagining a utopia of their own, and you are very likely not in it. 

"Half of the people can be part right all of the time, and some of the people can be all right part of the time, but all of the people can't all be right all of the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that. I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours." 

Bob Dylan said that.